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Have you ever wanted to give feedback to an employee, only to be held back by the thought of having to schedule a full-blown meeting for it? Maybe you’re worried your constructive feedback will come out wrong and be received badly. At the same time, preparing that feedback in an email just seems too impersonal; too stilted somehow... you’d rather speak face-to-face without the formalities. Planned one-on-one meetings are valuable for getting a comprehensive overview of an employee’s progress, or for discussing an issue in detail, but it would be unrealistic to organise one every time you want to share a piece of feedback.

Sometimes managers need to give feedback on the fly: it saves time, prevents feedback backlog, and can feel more natural in the context of a given situation. Here are some tips that will help you give swift feedback without losing the effectiveness of a longer feedback session.

Firstly, as when giving any kind of feedback, be aware of your intentions. The same piece of feedback sounds radically different depending on whether it comes from a critical person or someone who wants to help. Remember that the purpose of feedback is to support someone and motivate them to improve, not to reprimand them or complain. In the words of this HBR article: “if team members sense that you’re trying to blame them for something, you become their saber-toothed tiger.”

So avoid giving feedback if you’re feeling irritable, stressed or hostile. If you need help calming down, try assuming an open posture, take deep breaths and think of something that makes you laugh - these steps stimulate the parasynthetic nervous system and make it easier to relax. You can also think of the other person’s strengths and remember that just like you, everyone struggles sometimes. Giving feedback with empathy dramatically increases the likelihood that your feedback will be accepted and appreciated.

Make sure the timing is ok and that you’re not disrupting the employee’s schedule. All it takes is a quick “do you have a moment?” to check they don’t have an important meeting to be running off to. Once you know you have their full attention, pick a spot for your conversation. Don’t feel obliged to find an empty office to shut yourselves in: you could exchange feedback outside a meeting room you’ve just come out of together, or while walking to a cafe. If neither of you are in a rush, you could even invite them to lunch or take a stroll in the park - just make sure you’re able to talk with some discretion. Once you’re in a good position to give feedback, share your thoughts by following these four stages:

Describe the situation you want to talk about

It might be as simple as saying “I want to share something I noticed in the presentation you gave just now.” Doing this frames your conversation, puts both parties on the same page, and leaves less space for misinterpretation or confusion. Use clear and neutral language to describe your observations, and draw on specific examples where possible. Avoid making judgmental statements or vague generalisations. You can also acknowledge the other person’s strengths in passing, but don’t just praise them to sugar coat your constructive points. Authenticity is key!  

Explain the impact of your observation

Maybe there was something about the presentation that made it difficult to understand; or a particular section that took away from what was otherwise a great talk. By outlining the impact of a situation you help the other person understand why you felt the need to give feedback in the first place.  It also makes the feedback easier to relate to because you’re sharing your own experience and perspective, not just commenting on someone else’s actions.

Pause and ask for the other person’s input

At this point it's really important to give the other person a chance to speak! In a longer feedback session this might include a five minute break to cool off, but with shorter feedback you might simply request their opinion. Invite them to share their thoughts, and check if what you’ve said makes sense to them. Notice their body language: are they saying they agree, but appearing sad or frustrated?

Pausing not only lets the conversation breathe, but allows you to gauge the employee’s emotional response. It’s also the perfect time to clear up misunderstandings and learn new information: maybe there was a specific reason for why the presentation went that way. This step is all about having the humility to ask for the other person’s clarification: “if you believe you already know what the other person is thinking, then you’re not ready to have a conversation.”

End your feedback with a resolution

After you’ve both shared your perspectives, aired your thoughts and responded to each other, it should feel like you’re on the same side. Now it’s time to round up the conversation with suggestions on how to move forward. You don’t have to come up with a complex plan or long-term strategy: it could be as simple as offering your help or advice.

Alternatively, you can hand it to the other person and ask what they think is best. If you decide you need more time to discuss the issue, that’s when you can earmark it as a talking point for your next 1:1 meeting. Finish on a positive note so the employee leaves feeling informed and motivated, not criticised and resentful.

There are many ways to give feedback, but this particular kind of regular, off-the-cuff feedback is a catalyst for normalising feedback culture. It helps change the perception of feedback from high-stakes conversations between manager and employee, to helpful, informative check-ins that empower colleagues to support one another.

Once employees learn that being asked the question “do you have a moment?” isn’t going to end in tears, it incentivises trust and confidence in their managers and their peers. The key to earning this confidence is to give feedback clearly; empathetically; and with the aim of sustaining a supportive dialogue between you and your employees.

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